Saturday, April 19, 2008

#34. Talking About Us

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts:

Talking about God means talking about us." That's how I ended the previous post.

While bumper stickers proclaim "God is the answer," many today recognize that "God" is part of the problem. In the dynamic worldview that's ours thanks to modern science, a static understanding of God doesn't work. We need a participatory understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship to go with our participatory understanding of the anthropos-cosmos relationship.

In the dynamic worldview, we can see not only that cosmos, anthropos and theos go together, but also that anthropos has a central position. It's obvious that we can't say much either about the world or about God without talking about ourselves. That's what this post is about.


In sharing my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion via this blog, I've mentioned many times how valuable I find the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective, with its combination of insights from the three big scientific areas of evolutionary biology, neurophysiology and cultural anthropology. It's called a "structuralism" because it looks at the underlying structural aspects of all human cultures; it focuses on what groups of persons, from small communities to large ethnic groups, have in common.

In the realm of religious thought, Karl Rahner, a great genius of 20th century theological and philosophical understanding, does something similar. He too tries to analyze what all humans have in common; his emphasis is not on human culture, however, but on personal experience. Rahner focuses on the underlying structural aspects of the most basic experience we human have: our awareness of being a human being. (It's so basic it even sounds odd to say it!)


As an attempt to analyze the fundamental structural aspects of our experience of being human, Rahner's work is a kind of "experiential structuralism."

I want to emphasize that this is no small example of the contemporary convergence of science and religion. Just as Biogenetic Structuralism asks, "What do we come up with when we take into account biology, brain studies and the Earth's cultures?" so Rahner asks, "What do we come up with when we reflect on our experience of ourselves as a person?" The creative growing edge of scientific thought and the creative growing edge of religious thought are using very similar methods to enlarge and enhance our self-understanding.

"What's it like to be a person?" is not a question that most of us ask ourselves often, not only because we are taken up with the practical details of living, but also because we live in what has been called-- in a recent book, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby-- a "culture of distraction." The superficiality of so much in contemporary society prevents us from focusing on the deeper aspects of our lives.

Such questions are, however, the ones that matter most to all of us in the long run. They matter because how we understand ourselves shapes how we act. As Teilhard de Chardin expresses it, "Seeing is being." How we see ourselves determines how we live our lives.

Creative thinkers on the growing edge of both scientific and religious understanding are offering us new ways of seeing and offering us, therefore, new ways of being. They help us to a new understanding of our own existence, which we need in order to deal with our contemporary problems. It has always been the case in the Earth's cultural evolution that every evolutionary advance is the result of people dealing with new problems. Individuals and groups who don't deal with their problems eventually die off.

Rahner's starting point is to ask, " What touches all of us? What can everyone agree on about what's basic to human experience?" He attempts to articulate what all humans experience-- whether young, old, male, female, Christian, Jew, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, secularist, atheist or agnostic-- simply because they are human.

The great power of this effort is that, in looking at the underlying basics of personal experience always and everywhere, it allows us to link the static worldview of the past with the present dynamic perspectives of evolutionary science, and to see the world's various religious and cultural traditions, even contemporary secular values, in terms of our common human experiences.


I've emphasized repeatedly in these posts that we are a mystery to ourselves. Rahner's effort is to ask what aspects or structures of the experience of being a mystery to ourselves we can make explicit. What can we put into words about what's basic and common to the conscious experience of every human being who ever lived?

Rahner sees four underlying structural aspects to the mystery of being a person; he calls them "existentials" and names them self-presence, freedom, transcendence and grace.

His terms aren't as helpful as they might be. They come from a basically Germanic philosophical tradition, and just as C. G. Jung's German names for the functions of the four-fold mind (as I mentioned in post #29) don't really convey their meaning well in English, neither do those of Rahner.

Because at least two of them sound like traditional religious terms, it's especially important to recognize that Rahner is not relying on the traditional religious thinking of the past to talk about human experience.

He is relying neither on biblical and liturgical imagery (as was done in the Patristic period of western religious reflection) nor on abstract rational thought (as was done in the later Thomistic-Scholastic period). Rahner is doing something new.

His analysis of concrete human experience is part of the very broad movement in the modern world called the "turn to the subject" or "turn to the person." This "turn" toward episteme (personal consciousness), comes out of the more or less "Germanic" philosophical tradition which includes Descartes, Kant, Heidegger and the Enlightenment thinkers; it earliest roots go back to the time of Dante. It might best be described as an increasing awareness of awareness.

Karl Rahner calls this "turn to the subject" the "awakening of person in the world." In a way that our ancestors of past centuries never were, we are aware of ourselves today as autonomous and responsible "subjects." Rahner's focus is the anthropos-cosmos relationship which I have frequently referred to in these blog postings. And it's this awareness of the mystery of ourselves as conscious participants in an evolving universe that leads to new spiritual-religious perspectives appropriate to the New Cosmology. It really is a new start.

One important note. In Rahner's "structural" analysis of our experience of being a person in the world, it is you and I who are the authorities. Rahner can help us-- and he helps a great deal-- in putting words on our experience of being a person. But we're the ones who decide. In what follows, I'll describe as well as I can my understanding of Rahner's four "existentials." You can see if you think they fit your experience-- and whether, as Rahner says, all human experience.


[1] Self-presence. The first of Rahner's existentials-- of the fundamental aspects of the experience of being a human being-- is the easiest to understand; it is that we are aware of ourselves. Rahner calls this self-possession or self-presence.

As is the case for each of Rahner's existential aspects of human experience, we can express what he's trying to say in many ways: we are in possession of ourselves, we are present to ourselves, we experience ourselves as experiencing ourselves, we are conscious of ourselves as being conscious of ourselves, we know ourselves as knowing ourselves....

And although we can't give a simple definition of consciousness, we know what we mean by it. We understand what we're talking about, even though it's understanding that we are trying to understand. That's why we have so many names for the mystery of being a person: "mind," "consciousness," "experience," "gnosis," "knowledge," "awareness," "episteme"....

The problem is that a satisfying definition always has two parts: we always define something by saying it's "like such and such, but it differs in some way." A familiar scientific example is defining a plant by naming its genius and species. At familiar example at the cultural level is the term first used for a self-moving (auto-mobile) machine: a "horse-less carriage."

But we haven't anything to compare our conscious awareness with. We can say we experience ourselves as "subject" in contrast to being an "object," but that only distinguishes us as being self-aware from things which are not self-aware; it doesn't really help us to understand what self-awareness is in itself.

Probably the best and truest thing we can say about our consciousness is that "it's the same thing as God, but created." That's not helpful either, of course, unless-- as the Asian religious traditions have done-- we do some serious reflection on what we mean by "God." All the Eastern traditions begin with the insight that we and the Ultimate are a-dva: "not two."

And maybe that's the best we can do. And maybe, also, that's not so bad. Thinking about our self-presence leads us to an awareness of our own deepest mystery: our non-duality with the Great Mystery. (Clearly, "Talking About God" and "Talking About Us" go together.)

It's important to note that in Rahner's view, the awareness of the non-dual nature of personal awareness has nothing to do with religious doctrines as such.

He specifically mentions that while many people today reject religious beliefs, it's "not because they abhor the incomprehensible." What contemporary people reject, he says, is "the complications of human reasoning which has tied itself up in knots." It's the rationalism of religion and theology that they reject, not mystery.

Rahner stresses that people "sense and revere the nameless and inexpressible." It is "a mysterious simple thing of infinite fullness," he says, that, based on our experience of being a person, we find ourselves to be "a being in face of the nameless mystery."

This takes us well-beyond the rationalism of recent centuries in the western world, where the mind is "tied up in knots." As anthropos-in-cosmos-- "person in the world"-- we know ourselves in a new way. And this allows us to be in a new way.


[2] Transcendence. Rahner names his second existential aspect of human experience "transcendence." While the word is traditionally used to describe a creator who is above, apart from and independent of the world-- utterly different than anything we know or imagine-- Rahner uses it to describe human experience. He says we are self-transcendent.

It sounds as if he's saying that we experience ourselves as being beyond or separate from ourselves, but that's not what he means. He's saying that our deepest personal experience is something more profound than that of our everyday ordinary consciousness. There's more to us than the awareness we have when we are carrying out the normal everyday aspects of living. We are conscious that we have (or are) a deeper (or higher or bigger or truer) self. (Again, how we struggle with words!)

Probably the best word to use to express what Rahner means is "open." As a "person in the world," we experience ourselves at a deep level as being utterly open to everything that exists.

Another way to say it is that we experience ourselves as being "many-sided." Very many-sided.

This experience of being unlimited-- open to everything, unbounded, infinite-- is what Thomas Aquinas meant when he said that a person is "that which can become all things." We are potentially open to everything. We don't have any limits. We participate in infinity.

At first hearing, this may seems difficult to make sense of, but in fact it's something we experience all the time. As Aristotle said, "We desire to know." And everyone has had the experience, for example, of being interested in something-- whether it's growing roses or the structure of atoms or major league batting averages-- and wanting to know everything about it.

And as anyone with a passionate interest in anything has experienced, the more we learn, the less we know. The more we realize, that is, how little we know.

A good example is how we feel when we look up something on the internet. There are millions of sites and many millions of topics. Just now I checked out "Abraham Lincoln" and got 24 million entries. If I looked at one per minute, it would take me 500 years.

We may not be especially interested in Abraham Lincoln, but there are many things that we are interested in, and some of us seem to be interested in everything. The experience of wanting to know everything, to experience everything, to go everywhere, to see every interesting place in the world, to try every thing at least one, maybe even to go into outer space or certainly to go into the bigger world of inner space-- all of this is the kind of thing Rahner means when he says we experience ourselves as "transcendent."

Maybe the best way to say it is that nothing exists outside the realm of our possible experience. We really are open-ended. We are in some way one with all things. We experience ourselves as infinite, unlimited, unbounded, potentially present to all of reality, participants in infinity. We do not exist apart from the infinite unbounded reality underlying everything.

Western people are not at ease with such understanding of ourselves, even though it is a familiar experience when we reflect on it. But it, too, appears clearly in the Asian traditions, and this is, as I mentioned in the previous post, one of the main reasons westerners today are so interested in those ancient traditions.


[3] Freedom. Rahner's third existential is the very opposite of experiencing ourselves as open to all things: it's knowing ourselves to be limited, finite, particular, to be "this" but not "that."

This aspect of the experience of being a person is just as familiar as that of being open to and participating in infinite reality. And it, too, is an aspect of our being participants in the cosmic process. As "person in the world" we are not apart from and separate from the world. Indeed, as anthropos, we are the cosmos become aware of itself.

This means that we have a specific place in the world. We have a history. Each of us can say something like... "I'm male. I'm American. I have a mixed Scotch, German and Polish ancestry. I'm 5 feet, 9 inches tall. I'm 70 years old. I live in New Jersey. I'm married. I have two adult married children and two grandsons. I'm not good at languages, but I can do math fairly well. I don't like broccoli...."

Each of us can fill many pages with this kind of specific information about ourselves, but no other person in all the world can say exactly the same things we can. Rahner calls this "existential" aspect of ourselves, which is the opposite of openness or self-transcendence, our "historicity."

It has to do with "actualizing"-- making actual or real-- our uniqueness, our individuality, our creativity and freedom.

At first, "freedom" may seem to be the wrong word, but it's not. Rahner is talking here about what he calls our "awareness of the unbounded scope of the human spirit" and of bringing it down to earth.

It is precisely this experience of being a free and autonomous person which allows one to know one's self as a responsible subject. In the conventional religious context, "responsibility" usually has negative connotations; it readily evokes guilt feelings which religious authorities abusively exploit. But Rahner's emphasis is on the experience of being responsible for and to ourselves.

At a very deep level, we know we really are free, at least to some extent, to choose who and what we will be. And it is this freedom, which is ours precisely because we are specific and finite, that makes us a mystery to ourselves.


[4] Grace. Rahner's fourth existential is less easy to express clearly than the others. Not because it's difficult to understand, but because it's difficult to put into words that aren't easily misunderstood.

In responding to the question, "What is the experience I have of being a mystery to myself?" Rahner says we experience ourselves as "graced" or "blessed." A better English term might be "given." We experience ourselves as having been "given" to ourselves.

This is precisely the point that I made in the previous post (#33) when I noted that, in contrast to the idea of creation ex nihilo, the idea of creation by kenosis sees the creative source of the world as bringing us into existence by pouring itself out as the world and us.

In that post I quoted the pioneer 20th century theologian Henri de Lubac who explicitly says with regard to the Mystery's creative out-pouring that "there is no prior recipient." In calling this fourth existential "grace," Rahner is making the point that at a very deep level we do in fact experience ourselves as the "embodiment of an incomprehensible source."

I want to emphasize again that Rahner is not proposing a theological doctrine. It's what might be called a "pre-theology." He is intending a description of our experience of being a "person in the world" and offering an insight about human self-understanding which is independent of any specific religious or cultural tradition. A problem is that in our rationalist culture we can hardly hear it except as a theological concept.

But of much greater interest is the fact that the growing-edge scientists who have moved beyond the rationalism of 19th century science are saying something very similar to what Rahner is saying. I described some of these ideas in my very first blog entry.

In talking about what they call the "mind-matter issue," theoretical scientists working in fields with still-unfamiliar names such as "Systems Theory," Chaos Theory" and "Unified Field Theory," conclude that we and the world appear to be expressions (or manifestations) of an underlying order of reality for which they use terms like the "Vacuum Plenum," the "Quantum Sea" and the "Implicate Order."

Rahner says we experience ourselves as the "embodiment" of an "incomprehensible source." Back in the 1930s, the Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov used the phase "actualizations of the divine potentialities." And Jungian analyst Michael Conforti, a contemporary pioneer in matter-mind studies in the realm of the psychotherapy, uses a more traditional religious term. "The patterns of reality," he says, "are continually being incarnate in space and time."

Conforti's book, Field, Form, and Fate: Patterns in Mind, Nature, & Psyche, is an especially good collection of many of these concepts. (It was published in 1999, but it is recently new to me. My thanks to Mary Conrow Coelho for pointing it out to me.)

Once more, I want to emphasize, with regard to this existential aspect of being a person Rahner calls "grace," that he is not talking theory or theology. He says it's a matter of personal experience.


Some last thoughts. If you feel that Rahner's existentials aren't all that different from one another, I agree. They seem to be different ways of looking at the one same experience, of being a human person, from slightly different points of view.

And if you're thinking that this sounds a lot like the ideas about the four-fold mind that I've talked about in recent posts (#29-31), again, I agree. And there's even more to it: I've found that seeing Rahner's existentials in the light of quaternary consciousness is especially helpful for understanding the Immense Transition global humanity is in the midst of. I hope to share some thoughts about that in a future post.

My final thought is that whether we're talking theoretical science or personal experience, we are in fact "talking about us." These insights are available to all humanity, no matter what our ethnic and cultural and religious background. In recognizing ourselves as self-aware, open, free and blessed, we find ourselves not only to be mystery in the face of mystery, but personal participants in the progressive embodiment of the Great Mystery.

The New Science Story of the cosmos, life and anthropos-- of seeing ourselves as "person in the cosmos"-- is the heritage of all the people of the Earth. And it really is something new.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.